Sixers-Wizards thoughts: Finally, a season opener with meaning


Sixers-Wizards thoughts: Finally, a season opener with meaning

Sixers vs. Wizards
7 p.m. on ESPN
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This is different.

For the first time in a handful of years, the Sixers are set to tip off an NBA regular season with legitimate expectations and hope (see Fearless Forecast).

That all gets started in our nation’s capital as the Sixers open up the 2017-18 campaign against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center.

Let’s take a closer look at the matchup:

• You know the numbers by now: 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.5 blocks in 25.4 minutes per game.

Joel Embiid was an absolute force during his rookie season. After sitting out two years with foot injuries, Embiid showed the entire league just how dominant he can be when healthy. However, that lasted only 31 games before the big man suffered a torn meniscus.

That brings us back to the final section in that stat line: minutes. Embiid will be on a minutes restriction to start the season, a decision the center made clear that he does not support (see story). With the team eyeing around 16 minutes on opening night, things can get tricky. If he has it rolling early, do the Sixers still take him out at his designated time? Will they go light on playing time early to save him for down the stretch?

With the Sixers finally focused on actually winning some games and not solely on building for the future, it will be interesting to see how Brett Brown handles Embiid’s time on the floor.

• Time for take two on Ben Simmons' rookie season. Much like recent Sixers before him, Simmons sat out what would have been his entire rookie year after fracturing his foot in training camp.

While Simmons likely could have returned at some point in 2016-17, Rookie of the Year campaigns aren’t built on portions of seasons (just ask Embiid). And make no mistake about it, the Sixers’ new starting point guard has his sights set on bringing home the hardware.

Leading a team on the rise with his versatile skill set suggests Simmons will be among the frontrunners for the award. He put up 11.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.4 steals per game during the preseason. 

But at some point, he will have to give teams a reason to respect his shooting ability from outside the paint. Simmons was 0 for 3 from three-point range and 9 for 22 from the free throw line during preseason action.

• Speaking of rookies, when is the last time the No. 1 overall pick has come into his first season as under the radar as Markelle Fultz?

Since being selected atop June’s NBA draft, it’s been an up-and-down transition for Fultz. The Washington product showed his scoring prowess in summer league play before going down with an ankle injury. Then a shoulder injury suffered during camp caused him to alter his shooting stroke. Finally, an ailing knee forced him to the sideline for the rest of preseason.

Now Fultz will come off the bench with the second unit. It should be a better situation for him as he can be more of a focal point and to handle the ball more often without sharing the floor with Simmons. However, if the 19-year-old continues down a rocky path to start, will he be able to handle the criticism?

• Outside of the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson pairing, there is always debate about which team owns the best backcourt duo. Is it Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan? What about Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in Portland?

Scratch all of that. Besides the “Splash Brothers” in the Bay, my money is on the Wizards’ John Wall and Bradley Beal.

The guards simply get better each season, with 2016-17 being their best yet. Wall and Beal combined to average 46.2 points (23.1 apiece), 13.8 assists, 7.7 rebounds and 3.1 steals.

They are simply electric. And if matchups shake out as planned, veterans Jerryd Bayless and JJ Redick could be in for a long night.

• If anyone is looking forward to tipping off a new season, it has to be Brett Brown. The Sixers' head coach has endured one of the most extensive rebuilds in professional sports history and the anguish that goes along with such a plan.

Despite a 75-253 record over his first four seasons, Brown was able to not only keep the Sixers together but also still get them to compete to their best ability on a nightly basis.

And while that is certainly to be commended, things have flipped in a hurry for the head man. Brown’s objective now is to win and a fast start would go a long way toward proving he is really the man to transition the Sixers to the next phase of their rebuild. However, with 16 of the team’s first 21 games against opponents that reached the playoffs last season, it will be far from easy.

• The Sixers took two of the three matchups against the Wizards last season to win the season series. Jahlil Okafor actually led the way with an average of 18.7 points against the Wiz.

Brett Brown's top competition for Coach of the Year

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Brett Brown's top competition for Coach of the Year

The Coach of the Year award in every sport typically comes down to: 

1. Which team overachieved the most?

2. Which team increased its win total the most?

3. Which team that fits both descriptions has a media-friendly coach?

Brett Brown is a deserving candidate this season. Not saying he'll win, or even that he stands out as the most deserving, but he's more than just "in the conversation."

Before getting to the other candidates and their likelihood of winning, let's acknowledge why Brown deserves serious consideration. 

We all knew the Sixers would be better this season. A second year of Joel Embiid and the first of Embiid and Ben Simmons. Finally, a good veteran shooter in JJ Redick.

But did you expect the Sixers to up their win total by 20 games? Currently, that's what they're on pace to do.

Did you expect them to pick up wins over the Rockets, Spurs, Celtics, Raptors, Cavs and Spurs again? Yeah, the Sixers have laid some eggs this season, but they have just as many high-quality wins.

Factor in the continued development of players like Dario Saric and T.J. McConnell and it should be clear that Brown has gotten a whole lot out of this team.

Now, on to the other candidates. The way I see it, there are six in addition to Brown: 

• Dwane Casey (Raptors)
• Nate McMillan (Pacers)
• Brad Stevens (Celtics)
• Mike D'Antoni (Rockets)
• Quin Snyder (Jazz)
• Doc Rivers (Clippers)

Just being realistic here, I think Casey wins it. The Raptors will be the 1-seed in the East and may even end up with the NBA's second-best record given the Warriors' injury report.

It goes beyond that, though. Toronto revamped its system to place less stress on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The result has been the emergence of the NBA's best bench. DeRozan is also now shooting threes, a big benefit to the Raps' spacing.

Lastly, Casey is a media darling. He's done the podcast circuit this season, and his long tenure as a personable NBA assistant will help him with voters.

Nate McMillan
McMillan's Pacers have overachieved, but that has so much more to do with Victor Oladipo than anything else. That's not meant to discredit McMillan, but the gap between expectations and reality for Oladipo is the reason the Pacers have surprised. Unless the Pacers finish several games ahead of the Sixers, I can't see McMillan finishing ahead of Brown.

Brad Stevens
The Celtics have faded of late, mostly because of mounting injuries to their backcourt. Stevens deserves a ton of credit for keeping this team 25-plus games over .500 with so many young pieces, but he won't finish ahead of Casey.

Doc Rivers
Rivers' case is dependent on whether or not the Clippers make the playoffs. The Clips, based on talent alone, have no business being 38-33 in a loaded West. They just play extremely hard and have been maybe the hungriest NBA team this season — so many contributions from guys on two-way contracts.

But LA is now 2½ games out of the 8-seed, so we can almost close the book on Rivers for COY.

Mike D'Antoni
The Rockets have been the best team this season and D'Antoni is a huge reason why. The Chris Paul addition is a bigger reason why, but the Rockets are where they are because of how Paul has been integrated into D'Antoni's system, and because Houston is finally focused on defense. D'Antoni should finish in the top three of the Coach of the Year voting, but it's hard to win when you add a veteran superstar in the offseason.

Predicted order of finish: Casey, Brown, Snyder, D'Antoni, Stevens, McMillan, Rivers

Hornets sting Grizzlies to the tune of 61-point win

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Hornets sting Grizzlies to the tune of 61-point win

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kemba Walker scored 46 points and made 10 3-pointers, and the Charlotte Hornets rolled to the most lopsided victory in franchise history by beating the Memphis Grizzlies 140-79 on Thursday night.

Walker had the ninth 40-point game of his career as the Hornets easily overcame the absence of the suspended Dwight Howard. The All-Star guard hit 13 of 18 shots overall, including 10 of 14 on 3-pointers, and was 10 of 10 on free throws in 28 minutes.

He scored 17 points in the first quarter, 18 in the second quarter and 11 in the third before he was replaced for the final time with 1:48 left in the period.

It came one night after Howard's 32-point, 30-rebound performance that helped Charlotte rally from a 23-point deficit for a 111-105 victory at Brooklyn. But in the process, Howard was whistled for his 16th technical foul of the season, meaning he had to serve a one-game suspension on Thursday night.

It didn't matter as the Hornets roared ahead 12-2 in the first 4 1/2 minutes, were ahead 37-14 after one quarter, 75-42 at halftime and by a game-high 65 points (137-72) with 1:45 left before taking the 61-point win.

Charlotte's largest previous win in franchise history came by 52 points (136-84) at home against Philadelphia on Feb. 27, 1992 (see full recap).

Harden shakes off struggles to give Rockets OT win
HOUSTON -- James Harden scored 21 points, including 10 of Houston's 12 points in overtime, to shake off a tough four quarters and lift the Rockets to a 100-96 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Thursday night.

After going 2 of 16 in regulation, including missing a shot that would have won it, Harden warmed up in overtime. He put Houston up with a basket early in the period before making it 93-90 on a three-point play after a basket by Andre Drummond. He added three free throws with about a minute left before P.J. Tucker's tip-in made it 98-90 with 21 seconds to play.

Blake Griffin, who finished with a triple-double, had a 3-pointer after that, but Harden made two more free throws to push the lead to seven. Harden missed both free throws after a 3-pointer by Ish Smith with 4.2 seconds left, but the Rockets held on to extend their winning streak to seven games.

It was an ugly game which featured 71 missed 3-pointers combined. Houston was 12 of 51 and Detroit made just 6 of 38.

Eric Gordon added 22 points for Houston on a night Chris Paul sat out with a sore left hamstring.

Griffin had 21 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Drummond had 17 points and 20 rebounds (see full recap).

Kings beat Hawks amid protests outside arena
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Justin Jackson scored 11 of his season-high 20 points in the third quarter and the Sacramento Kings beat the Atlanta Hawks 105-90 on Thursday night in a game that was delayed due to protesters who were locked arm-in-arm surrounding entrances to Golden1 Center.

Jackson shot 7 of 8 and was perfect on four shots beyond the arc to help the Kings split the season series with the Hawks while avenging their worst loss of the season. Atlanta beat Sacramento 126-80 in November.

Buddy Hield and Frank Mason scored 16 points apiece, while Kosta Koufos added 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Kings.

A massive crowd shut down nearby freeways and gathered in the surrounding streets to protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man who was in the backyard of his grandparents' house Sunday night. According to reports, Clark was shot 20 times.

Only a few hundred fans made it into the Golden1 Center before police decided to not allow anyone else to enter. Several of those who did get in were allowed to move down into the lower bowl of the arena, leaving the upper deck empty.

With so few fans in attendance, the game often had the look and feel of a high school playoff.

The Kings led most of the way and pulled away in the second half behind Jackson and Hield, who scored 10 points in the fourth quarter.